The Love of God,
Eternity,
Heaven and Hell

 


The Last Judgment, Michelangelo


Why would a loving God send people to hell for eternity?

This question may be the one most commonly raised by those objecting to the idea of judgment of sin.  However we need to recognize this is actually what is called a loaded question, since it contains a false assumption.  Both the Old Testament and New Testament reveal that a destiny in heaven or hell is determined by our choice about our relationship with God.  In the parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus showed how much God desires to relate to us as a loving heavenly Father (Luke 15:11-32).  Sadly, when we sin against God we are like the ungrateful son who demanded his inheritance so he could leave for a “far away country.” In effect we are saying, “Dad, I want you dead, so I can get what’s coming to me and be free of the responsibilities of our family.”  The pleasures of sin will drive such rebellion until natural consequences finally cause us to experience loss.  Some will “come to their senses” and recognize the cause of their loss, others will not.  If we humbly seek to return, we are drawn by faith in the goodness of the Father.  As we begin that return home we will see the Father is coming to meet us with his unconditional love and grace.  Whereas we were spiritually dead, we are made alive through faith in Christ.  Ironically, the parable concludes with the complaint of a disgruntled brother about the “fairness” of his sinful brother coming home to “heaven.”  In the end, when we use our freedom to break relationship with a loving heavenly Father, we have chosen hell rather than the home in heaven God had intended. 

But if God really loves us, why did he create hell in the first place?

Jesus has revealed that hell was originally “prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41, NIV 1984).

Regarding heaven, Jesus promised those who put their trust in God:

“In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you.  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” (John 14:2-3, NIV 1984).

Is there really a hell, or is this just a scare tactic used by religious leaders to motivate people to do good?

Throughout history, nearly every religion has warned about the reality of hell.  

Certainly the Bible is clear about the reality of hell.  In the Old Testament there are over 30 passages that explicitly mention the reality and existence of hell.  Many more address the broader consequences of a destiny in hell.  For example in Isaiah 14:15, in a passage dealing with the origin and the destiny of Lucifer (Satan):

“Yet thou (Lucifer) shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit.”

In the New Testament there are over 20 passages that explicitly mention hell and many more that warn about the implications.  Jesus not only taught the existence of hell, he actually talked more about it than anyone else in scripture.   Some of the strongest warnings about hell come from Jesus who challenged people to take it very seriously.  He forewarned his disciples:

 “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28 ESV). 

And when Jesus described the outcome of the lives of, “The Rich Man and Lazarus” it was a story like no other.  He included a real personal name—Lazarus:  

“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. [20] And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, [21] who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. [22] The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried, [23] and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. [24] And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ [25] But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. [26] And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ [27] And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father's house— [28] for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ [29] But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ [30] And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ [31] He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”  (Luke 16:19-31 ESV) 

From this description we can see that both the Old Testament and the New Testament are absolutely clear about the reality and the gravity of hell. 

But many people doubt the existence of hell, maybe we should too. 

As Christians we believe the testimony of Jesus.  After all, he is the only one who has died, actually gone into hell, and risen again to tell the truth about how we can go to heaven.  One thing to remember is it is common for people to deny the existence of some very real things.  Take for example the words and actions of the so-called New-atheists, “There is no God, and I hate him!”  Another example is seen in the indefensible position of Holocaust-deniers.   Let me share a personal experience I had with a hell-denier. 

My wife and I were invited to a party that we only learned on arrival was an after-party for a pro-abortion rally.  (The picket-signs stacked in the front yard were our first warning.) After we sat down and tried to relax, a guy who declared he was Jewish set up a bar stool from which he began to “preach” to a group of like-minded friends.  He began to complain about how pro-life leaders were a bunch of self-righteous Christian hypocrites who believed they were the only ones with the truth and that everyone else was going to hell.  He kept up his complaints about hell, hard-heartedness, and religious bigotry for quite some time, and each time he raised his voice the people in the party echoed, “Yeah!”  My wife and I could only exchange concerned glances.  When the “preacher” was finally satisfied he had said it all, he sat down right next to me.  At that point I leaned over to him, introduced myself, and told him I was a Christian and that I believed the only reason I could ever go to heaven is because Jesus died on the cross for my sins.  The shock on his face was obvious—he had gone too far.  Then it was like something pushed him back and he declared out loud, “I actually do believe there are some really, really, really bad people—like Hitler—who are going to hell.” I then asked him, “So, how really, really, really bad do you have to be to go to hell?  Where do you draw the line? And how can you be sure you have not crossed the line?”  My new acquaintance went silent.  By the end of the party my wife and I had shared about our faith in Christ with everyone who mostly affirmed a need to get back to church and even a return to faith in Christ.  It turned out that many were concerned about hell and their eternal destiny. 

Why is divine justice needed?  

When we reject God as our heavenly Father, we have chosen to relate to him as the judge of the universe.  Now the need for divine justice in the universe is indisputable.  We need only consider the monstrous acts of evil committed by Adolph Hitler, the 911 terrorists, and the New Town Massacre Shooter.  All these evil men committed suicide to escape the punishment they deserved.  Now God has promised a day of justice for everyone (Revelation 20:11-15).  And this punishment must be carried out by a Righteous Judge—who can only be God—since every other person in the universe must first deal with his own sin. 

Now most people agree that wickedness demands justice, but then argue that "lesser sins" do not deserve eternal punishment, only some kind of repayment.  But we need to ask, "What could anyone ever do to pay for a past sin?" Whether it is a sin of commission, like murder, or sin of omission, like laziness, it is impossible to make up for harm done.  A lost life or a lost opportunity can never be restored.  It makes no sense to try to make up for, or fix the past.  Only forgiveness can change our situation and change our hearts.  Therefore God gave his Son to pay our penalty for sin by dying on the cross.  

In contrast to our human rationalization for sin, the Bible says that God is holy, and therefore he cannot even look on sin; much less allow it to live in his presence for eternity (Isaiah 6:1-5; Habakkuk 1:13). Only the sinless life of the Son of God is counted as worthy enough an offering to purchase our forgiveness (Revelation 5:1-11).  And if we will not accept the gracious gift of life through the Son, we have rejected the gift of life with the Father.

Wouldn’t it be better if God just took people to heaven where they could finally live at peace because all their needs were met?

No one wants to see anyone go to hell.  According to the scriptures, “God our Savior wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4 NIV 1984).  However why would we think a person who disliked following God here on earth would love being with God for eternity in heaven?  C.S. Lewis wrote an insightful novel called The Great Divorce in which he illustrated many character types who preferred their sinful “needs” over the good that God had offered.  Therefore the chance to live in the presence of a holy God didn’t meet these needs, and in fact terrified them.  These characters knowingly choose hell over heaven.

So, what sort of law would condemn someone to hell, and is it just?

The law of free will is simply this: Those who will not live with God, shall not live with God. Though man was created to live with God for eternity, if we refuse the gift of eternal life in his Son, then we have chosen eternal death in hell. Yet God has said, 

"Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?" (Ezekiel 18:23, NIV 1984)

Hell is a free will choice of eternal consequence.  In the end it is actually not God who sends us to hell, it’s our own free choice.  

How is the idea of “God’s love” compatible with the existence of hell?

The Bible says, “God is love” (1 John 4:8).  Forced love is not love, it is rape.  God does not overwhelm us with his power in order to force us to want to live with him.  He allows us the “space” we demand and this includes our decision about eternity.  Those who do not wish to be with him must be allowed to be separated from him.  Hell allows separation from God. 

Couldn’t God just annihilate evil people rather than sending them to hell?

As we discussed above, it would not be justice for evil men to escape judgment by suicide or by any other means.  So the punishment of sin demands a punishment after death.  The Bible says, “Man is appointed to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27, NIV 1984).  Annihilation would not be punishment, but a release from all consequences.   And Jesus warned of degrees of punishment (Matt 5:22), but there can be no degrees of annihilation.  Finally, it makes to sense for God to create a person and then uncreate that person.  When we were “created in the image of God” (Genesis 1:26,27) we received eternal existence—one of God’s communicable attributes.  Jesus did say that it would have been better for Judas to have never been born (Matt 26:24), but Judas did live and he chose to sin against the revealed love of God in His Son Jesus Christ.         

Does the Bible really teach that those who do not believe in Jesus will go to hell?

No, the Bible does not teach that those who do not believe in Jesus will go to hell.  The Bible teaches that sinners are going to hell. The bad news is that all of us have sinned (Romans 3:23) and there is no one who is righteous (Romans 3:10). The Good News is that Jesus died for our sins so that we may be reconciled to God through faith in him. The coming of Jesus into the world did not condemn people to hell; the coming of Jesus means there is a way of escape from going to hell.  As the scripture says:

"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved." (John 3:16,17, KJV)

How can we be certain that we will go to heaven?

Jesus said that, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10 ESV).  This abundant life can be experienced right now, before we cross over to the next life in heaven, through faith.  Jesus promised, 

“I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24, NIV 1984). 

Finally, the scriptures promise, 

“If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9,10 ESV).   

Is fear of hell a good motivation for putting our faith in Christ?

There can be great wisdom in fear.  Fear of heights is reasonable when standing at the edge of a cliff.  Fear of addiction if we are offered to take drugs.  Fear of destruction if we drink and drive.  Fear of God is we rebel against the Judge of the whole universe.  Fear of eternal destruction in hell if we don’t find forgiveness for our sins. 

However, Christian faith is not primarily motivated by a desire to escape the terrors of hell, but a desire to be with our loving, faithful Savior and Lord.  Remember, “We love, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19 NIV 1984).  When we respond to God’s love, life in Heaven with Jesus is the reward.  

My personal testimony about saving faith after a period of half-hearted religion

Early in seeking to follow Christ I found I was drawn to his holy, pure, strong, and loving life.  Yet I was unnerved by my inability to obey God's commandments.  In time I came to doubt the possibility of my salvation.  Then I had a life changing experience.  My church had recommended we memorize Hebrews 10:25 which is a fairly positive verse about the importance of faithful church attendance.  As I was meditating on that verse I naturally moved on to read Hebrews 10:26-31 (NIV 1984): 

“If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, [27] but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. [28] Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. [29] How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? [30] For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” [31] It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

I now realized that my sin was separating me from the Savior—who I had come to love.  I realized that Jesus is not only a Savior he is the Lord.  Right then and there in my apartment I bowed down on my knees and asked God to forgive my sins and to give me the power to obey him.  It has now been over thirty-two years since God answered that prayer.  Jesus said, “I came that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10, KJV).  I have learned that eternal life in heaven is preceded by an experience of eternal life right here on earth.  

Summary:

The Biblical message about how we may go to heaven and so avoid hell is the key expression of the love of God.  A truly caring Christian will seek to “speak the truth in love” (Hebrews 4:15).  Please don’t withhold these vital truths about the way to heaven.  Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6, NIV1984).  We must tell people the whole truth about a relationship with God through faith in his Son Jesus Christ.  

Tim Nordgren

2/26/13

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